The soccer field at Villa 31, one of the main slums in Buenos Aires, is split in two.
In one game, the teenagers play ball. In the other, a group of nine children, all masked and respectful of social distance, are seated in a circle. With them, Iván Madariaga, 28, explains what the geography of the country looks like and pronounces the names of the provinces and the capital.
“I am not a teacher, but we find it difficult to take lessons here. So we decided, together with other parents, to do this ‘makeshift school’ here, because outside there is less. risk of contagion. Every day one of us studies the content and come to them. So that they don’t lose much, “he said.
Regular classes in Argentina were completely suspended in the first seven months of the pandemic, and the return has been difficult and irregular. Besides the disagreement between the federal and municipal governments of Buenos Aires over returning to school in person, in a dispute that ended up in the Supreme Court, regions such as Villa 31 are facing the pandemic with more difficulty.
The interruption of classes has led to the escape of more vulnerable students, and the number of those who have dropped out of school is 40% among those living in slums, settlements and poor neighborhoods.
More and more unemployed parents have had to take their children to the streets in search of work, and high food prices have taken away important items from children’s meals. Playtime, in many cases, has been consumed by the need to work from home to help the family.
The conditions of Villa 31 are even good compared to the new settlements formed by people who had to leave their homes because they could not pay the rent in the favelas. Some, like Guernica, have already been displaced after a political dispute, but many still remain in the province of Buenos Aires and in the south of the country. There is no education, no clean water, no electricity, no food.
Poverty figures have increased sharply in Argentina since 2017, under the mandate of Mauricio Macri. The most recent data from Indec, the Argentinian IBGE, shows that it now reaches 42% of Argentines, an increase of two percentage points since the last measurement and seven from the previous one, marking a pronounced ascending curve.
Among children, the figure is even worse: 57.7% of them are poor, in a scenario where the pandemic takes them out of school and results in the loss of jobs for many parents. There is also the macroeconomic situation, with a drop of 9.9% of GDP in 2020, cumulative inflation of 36.1% this year and 4.8% in March, even with some sectors of the economy at the bottom. ‘stop. Unemployment has reached 11% and more than 1.1 million people have lost their jobs during the health crisis.
Last year, the government issued a large sum to pay the IFE (Ingresso Familiar de Emergencia) and thus help families already enrolled in programs such as Asignación Universal por Hijo – Argentina’s Bolsa Família. For 2021, however, the government said there was no money to extend the benefit, as issuing more money would lead to hyperinflation. In addition, there are limits to the energy and transport tariff freeze decreed by President Alberto Fernández at the start of the pandemic.
In recent weeks, the Ministry of the Economy has started a debate on the need to defrost the electricity bill and, later, that of other services. If so, the impact on poor households will be even greater.
Gabriel, 13, sells peppermint candies in downtown Buenos Aires. Her mother is on the other side, holding a baby. “I don’t mind coming here because I love being in the city. But it makes me sad that my mother has to beg and the baby is cold, ”he says. The father of the children is in the countryside to help with the construction and only comes back every three weeks. Informal work represents 40% of the Argentinian market.
According to UNICEF data for 2020, 16% of adolescents perform informal work in the country. Of that total, 46% did not do so before the pandemic. “This is an indicator that shows that, given the lack of resources at home, adolescents are pressured to go out and help,” says Sebastián Waisgrais, social inclusion specialist at the United Nations Children’s Fund. in Argentina.
For Agustín Salvia, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires, “the pandemic worsens child poverty because it worsens the living conditions of the family, but poverty in Argentina is due to structural causes that go beyond health crisis “. Aid investments such as IFE, he says, are essential in times of emergency, as are the urbanization of poor neighborhoods, investment in housing and improved job creation.
In general, social assistance plans are praised by economists and the population, as they helped lift Argentina out of the 2001 crisis, during which the peso suffered a severe devaluation and poverty reached 58 , 2% of the population. But, in this scenario, which corresponded to the years in power of Néstor Kirchner and the first term of Cristina Kirchner, the country was in a different situation.
There has been a “commodity boom” and exports to China, mainly soybeans, have grown the country by up to 9% per year. Kirchner’s management also created grants for various services such as transport, electricity, water, increasing the economy and reducing poverty by almost half.
Subsequently, this panorama disappeared, with the slowdown in the world economy, mismanagement and the increase in cases of corruption. Even so, the fight against poverty in those years remains a success for the couple Néstor and Cristina. Now, although the country has a president with the same political acronym, Peronist Fernández, the effect on the poorest population is not the same. The government offered few alternatives to effectively fight poverty and only saw this figure increase.
Especially after the end of the IFE, at the end of 2020, social organizations and workers started weekly acts in Buenos Aires to demand the return of the benefit, as well as policies to stimulate the economy.
The Unicef survey also highlights that four out of ten households where children live have seen a reduction in labor resources and that 70% of them have lost half or more than half of their salary. “There is a broad consensus on the need for economic and social assistance offered by the state,” said Luisa Brumana, from Unicef Argentina.
In the municipality of Berazategui, in Greater Buenos Aires, there is a “popular olla” (common pot) every Saturday to help the inhabitants and, in particular, the children. It is a tradition among neighbors of poor Argentine neighborhoods, often helped by an NGO or a social institution. Each person brings something to help: meat, pasta, rice, tomatoes, chorizos, cheese, vegetables – it doesn’t matter.
“In winter, especially, it helps a lot. The children know that, that day, they will have a hot meal, a nutritious soup, ”says Izelina Galdéz, 42 years old. The “olla” is repeated in several districts of the city and ends up becoming a place of socialization. At this meeting, the cooks and those who organize the distribution use masks and gloves. The hardest part is for people to properly maintain their distance or face shields.
“We try to guide them, but the hunger is great. What we are really asking is that the elderly do not come. Have a parent come and get the portions we have prepared for them. But the hungry boys, happy to be together here, there is no way to contain it, ”says Galdéz.